In conversation with Mr. Chewang Norphel

By Reach Ladakh Correspondent Leh, May 04, 2013
Leh :
Chewang Norphel is a resident of Skara ‘Mahey’ born in 1936. He did his Diploma in Civil Engineering from Civil Engineering School, Lucknow in 1960. After finishing his studies, he joined Rural Development Department as Observer. In 1966 he was promoted to Sub-Division Officer and posted in Zanskar where he served 7 years. In 1973, he was promoted as Assistant Engineer to oversee the Tibetan Rehabilitation programme. In 1980, he was promoted as Executive Engineer in the Rural Development Department, in which he retired in March 1995. After his retirement, he joined Leh Nutrition Project, an NGO based in Leh, as Chief Project Officer where he served for over 17 years. In August 2012, he called it a day and decided to retire from LNP. 

Water from streams and springs are going waste in the winter. How to save it for good use in summer? Artificial Glacier is the answer. It converses water in the form of ice on the mountain slopes in the winter months and melts in spring right in time for the first irrigation. It is very popular in the mainstream media and it has won him many awards.

Q. How did you get the idea or concept of an artificial glacier?

I worked as a civil engineer in the Rural Development Department. My job requires me to travel to different parts of Ladakh. I have seen that most of the villages faces problem of water for drinking and this problem has increased over the years. In some of the villages, it was possible to construct an irrigation canal, by diverting water from the other streams and water sources. But it is not the same in every village.  How to get more water in the village? 

I realized that the water is going waste in the winter months as it gets drained into the Indus River. The idea stuck in my mind, to converse the water in the form of ice which will melt in spring, right in time for the field irrigation. This will prove to be a great benefit to the farmers as they will get surplus water from the artificial glacier. The water requirement is highest in the spring season at the time of sowing. Early irrigation and sowing ensure early ripe in crops. Since the artificial glacier is located close to the village, it starts melting earlier than the natural glacier. Because of global warming and climate change, the ploughing season is advanced by 15 days or more. It is crucial to irrigate the field at the right time because if it is delayed, crops will fail to mature on time.

Q. What kinds of benefits (social, economical, environmental) have you observed or recorded in those villages?

There have been recent changes in the cultivation of crops. Recently the focus has been shifted on cash crops. Traditional crops like barley and wheat are grown in lesser quantity whilst potato and peas are main income generating sources for a farmer in these villages. Potato and green peas need to be sown 20 days earlier than other crops for its proper maturation requires 120 days, instead of 90 days for traditional crops. Cultivating cash crops instead of wheat and barley will enable a farmer to increase his income by five fold. Artificial Glacier provides additional water to the irrigation stream, thereby allowing the farmers to grow potato and vegetables. The surplus water is used for trees and alfa-alfa fields. Tree plantation has also increased in these villages, resulting in the increase in family income. A branch of a tree is sold at Rs. 35 at present. Alfa-alfa grass can be harvested twice if it gets watered in early spring which is a main fodder for the livestock. 

By blocking the flow of water through stone walls it helps to recharge or rejuvenate the groundwater table, thereby increasing the flow of water in the downstream and natural springs. It has been observed by the villagers. It also helps in moistening the soil and development of pasturelands which are pivotal for livestock herders.  

Q. How much does it cost? 

The cost of construction of artificial glacier varies from site to site, depending on physiography, length of diversion canal (half-a-kilometer to 2 kilometer), stone walls or retaining wall, mode of transportation and labour etc. We have estimated Rs.3 lakh for an easier site and Rs.10 lakh for a site with difficult terrain. Machinery are used for making the canal and transportation. If it is done manually, it gives slow progress. Projects are time bound. In order to achieve the project within the stipulated time the contract for construction of artificial glacier is given to a local contractor. LNP supervises the work to ensure its quality. 

Q. Who provided the funds? What is the contribution of local beneficiaries in the project? 

Department of Science and Technology, Government of India and Sadbhavna provided the necessary finances to build the artificial glaciers at Saboo, Nang, and Stakmo. DST also provided financial support to build a water reservoir (zing) in Kharu. Artificial Glacier stores water in the form of ice in the winter whilst water reservoir is used to store water in summer. 

Q. What kind of challenges and problems do you face during the course of its construction or afterward?

It is difficult to find funds for an artificial glacier. It is not a proven technology. It is at its early stage of experimentation. The cost is quite high (up to 10 lakh rupees). The villagers should take interest in the project and cooperate with the implementing agency. However, this is not a work which can be done by the villagers. The work progress will be too slow. It is best to hire a contractor for its construction. The contractor makes sure to finish the work as early as possible, engaging his own labours and machines. By doing so, it harms the sentiment of some villagers. They criticize the work of the contractor. 

Funding agencies give money to cover the expenses incurred in the construction of artificial glacier. The maintenance is the responsibility of local villagers who are the beneficiaries. Since the villagers do not contribute to the project, their sense of ownership is missing. Most of the time, villagers fail to maintain and repair the structure when damaged and with time, it becomes ineffective. Our people are too dependent on the government support system. They don’t take initiative to mend the walls and repair the canal without receiving money for their work, even though they understand that they are benefiting from the artificial glacier yet they continue to wait for help. Agriculture is not the prime source of income and livelihood for some of the people and their interest in farming is getting less and less. Unless the villagers (beneficiaries) take a personal interest, it is difficult to undertake a project, because it doesn’t guarantee success. Normally, the beneficiary should contribute 10% of the project cost, either in cash and kind. A natural disaster like flood destroys the structure and sometimes it happens because of the negligence of the villagers. Either way, it is the responsibility of the villagers to reconstruct and repair the damaged structure, which is not seen in some of our project areas. The village heads should take the key responsibility. Since it is a community-based project, all the villagers should agree on the project and share its benefits and the responsibilities of maintaining it. 

Q. What is its importance and significance in today’s Ladakh? Are there scopes of such artificial glacier in other parts of Ladakh?

Water plays a pivotal role in our survival. Some experts say water will be the main cause for the Third World War. Already people are fighting for water, just like oil. It is important to save water because water is life. The demand for water has increased over the years due to the high influx of tourists and migrants, particularly in Leh town. Human population is growing. Ladakh is getting greener due to more plantations. New and different varieties of vegetables are grown today. We need more water than before. We consume more water than before. The water table in decreasing and it is proved by many studies. We should focus on saving water.  

Q. How many artificial glaciers have you built so far? How many of them are in a functioning state or being used?

So far LNP has built 10 artificial glaciers, out of which on two are in good working conditions, which is quite sad and discouraging. They failed due to no maintenance from the villagers. 

In your opinion, how many people in Ladakh know about artificial glacier? What could be done to popularize it? 

I think not too many people in Ladakh know about the artificial glacier. Apart from the villages (from Stakmo to Phey) along the Indus River and a few others, most of the villages in Ladakh rely on glacier melt water for drinking and irrigation. These glaciers are receding fast. Artificial Glacier has big scope for replication in many parts of Ladakh and other regions similar geo-climatic conditions as Ladakh, villages above 14,000 feet altitude and -10 degree Celsius. It will be more successful in places where they are already facing dire shortages of water for irrigation. Until you don’t see it you won’t believe it. Therefore, it is important to visit the site at Nang and Saboo and see how it works. 

Q. Did other organisations, institution and agencies adopt your technology?

Sheep Husbandry department has built some artificial glacier in Changthang (Mudh and Tsaga) under the Watershed Development Programme. Some people from Nubra approached for a project but I didn’t get time to visit the site. 

Don’t you think there should be a special budget with the government for artificial glacier construction and maintenance? 

The demand has to come from people. The big question is where we get the funds. Artificial Glacier is a new concept and there is no provision or funds allocated especially for it in the government schemes. Rural Development Department takes care of zing construction in the villages wherever needed. They should be the one to take it forward in the future. LAHDC should adopt the technology and promote it further. 

Chewang Norphel has been recognized for his great work on artificial glacier and water conservation by many, he is a very well decorated with national and international awards. Among them are:

1. Meritorious Services Award by Deputy Commissioner 1961

2. Meritorious Services Award by Deputy Commissioner 1982

3. Best Rural Engineering Award by President of India 1998

4. Far Eastern Economic Review by Gold Asian Innovation Award of Hongkong 1999

5. Vasant Rao Naik Award 2002

6. Distinguished Rural Engineering Award by Centre for Science and Education 2002

7. Certificate of Appreciation by Ministry of Water Resources 2003

8. Limca Book of Records 2006

9. Harmony Silver Award by Tina Ambani 2007

10. Eco Warrior Award by Earth Matter Foundation 2007

11. Real Heroes Award by CNN-IBN and Reliance 2008

12. Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation Award by President of India 2010

13. Empowered Line Resilient Nation Building Community Resilience to Climate Change by UNDP 2011 

14. Environmental Award (Rural) by 14 Corps 2011